Thoughts on : Rating Scores

A rating score consists of numerical signs, i. e. numbers.

A video game consists of many lines of code, images, animations, objects, audio files, texts and more.

While you may be able to count these objects or translate some of them into a mathematical system, this will always be an abstraction of reality and reduction of an incredibly complex object into a very simplified statistical value. Doing so is a common and even useful method in science. However, games are no science. In fact, games have any right to be called art, and thus must be treated as art. One of the most prominent examples of art is the Mona Lisa. Have you ever seen this painting being rated in a numerical score? It can’t be done. You can certainly try it, but no one would take you seriously.

Still, there is a numerical value on paintings, even in a very literal sense: price. Art is being traded at very high prices. However, one must take into consideration the fact that price changes – always. The reason for this is that art has a different value to every single individual person according to the fact that everybody has a unique personality and background, and even within that individual person the value can vary over time, due to external influences, be it other persons’ opinions, the zeitgeist, the political circumstances, the wealth of the nation and so on. This being said, value is a fluctuating thing that cannot be captured on paper to be made a general truth for everyone everytime. Money may have great value in society, however Robinson Crusoe soon comes to the very drastic conclusion that money is of no value whatsoever to him on a deserted island.

Which brings me to my probably most important point: value – and thus rating scores – is subjective. Subjectivity necessarily is a part of human nature, since we have no hive mind, since we are individual. Also, we are limited to the input of our sensory organs which form our perception. These perceptions vary from person to person – there even is a theory that says that every human sees a colour differently. Also, children perceive the world differently than adults. Science has shown that the brain isn’t even fully developed until you are over twenty years old. This means, that every human will experience external influences individually and each of these experiences is unique and cannot be reproduced to be experienced identically in another human’s sensory system. (There are some interesting ideas in science fiction, however.)

But let us delve back into subjectivity per se. You may have heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Among other things, this allegory also teaches us that even if every human had the exact same perceptive capability this would not necessarily make everyone think of one thing as the same. For example, ask a person about the definition of “good”. The problem already starts when you realize that “good” always is context related. From a capitalist point of view fracking may be considered a good thing to do, now that the easily accessible oil reserves are getting scarce. However, from an environmentalist point of view this is one of the most terrible things you could possibly do, since it destroys habitats, pollutes groundwater and even causes earthquakes. So on the one hand, the definition of “good” strongly depends on your standpoint. On the other hand, your definition will always be based on your individual morality. Everyone has an individual and unique semantic definition of anything.

To continue this train of thought: how do you define whether a game is good or not? You could look at the graphics and judge on that. However, there again the problem arises that most people have a different graphical experience, especially in PC gaming where not everyone has a fully upgraded gaming optimized system that can run the latest FPS blockbuster on maximum settings. Also, one must put into consideration that graphic design is also a part of graphics. How do the characters look, how much detail was put into the environment? Is the art style realistic or stylized? There again you will find that everyone has different preferences. In many games there are characters who are worshiped by one faction of the fans and loathed by the other faction, just because of their looks.

It is no different about all the other aspects of a game: music, gameplay, plot, dialogues, characters, presentation, difficulty, linearity, etc. Just roaming the internet you will find many and lengthy comment and forum discussions about these things. Which is a good thing.

Many gaming magazines try to rate each of these aspects individually and then put them together to form one overall score. This again, however, has grave downsides. Of course the aforementioned problems of taste will arise. So how can your overall score be valid if even over the base scores of the individual aspects there can be no unity of opinion? Also, why should every aspect have the same ratio in the overall score? There might be persons who don’t care for the depth of the story at all and place gameplay at top priority. Or there might be persons who won’t even try to play a game that has no excellent graphics. Should you not put the gameplay or story at a higher percentage in the overall rating of the game? The problem gets even worse when you look at the current trend of games being released unfinished. Due to the fact that more and more people have access to the internet and developers are more and more forced by publishers to achieve dead lines and release dates, games are constantly being updated after they have been released. This may affect and alter core aspects of a game, such as gameplay, graphics and performance. Do you give a good rating to a game that has terrible bugs at launch although they are fixed months later? Do you give a good rating to a game that has terrible bugs but otherwise excellent concepts of game design? There might be people who are offended by simple glitches which others won’t even notice. Looking at the current trend on Steam, you now can buy yourself into alphas which according to their very own natures are full of bugs that want to be fixed. People doing this obviously don’t care about the bugs. Other games again don’t have the official status of alphas or betas anymore but are frequently being updated and improved, like for example League of Legends. The game now has changed a lot from how it was when it launched in 2009.

Apart from that, nowadays more and more games are getting DLCs. Those are optional but can completely change your gaming experience, or worse, even destroy it, when they break the game immersion like in the otherwise great Dragon Age Origins. Some people don’t even bother to buy DLCs, others get them instantly as soon as they are available. Do you implement those into the overall rating of the actual game – do you even acknowledge their status as belonging to the game when you can have a complete game experience without them?

Another, completely different problem in rating occurs, when you are facing games that fail to fit into any category, and thus have no other games to which they can be compared to. Some of these games are even having trouble being acknowledged as games. For example, some might argue that Heavy Rain is not a game, but an interactive episodic film. However, Heavy Rain has never been shown in cinemas or on TV but is sold like a game and can only be experienced on a gaming platform. So is Heavy Rain a great game because it’s the best game in it’s category – a category which consists only of one example: Heavy Rain itself (of course I might have overlooked some examples, but apparently none more come to my mind).

I could go on and on about the disadvantages of rating scores, but let us have a look at the supposedly good sides of them.

For one, you could argue that by combining many different scores of different magazines and websites to one average value you could achieve one score that perfectly represents the game’s quality – like metacritic.com does. You maybe have already guessed up to now, that my main target of distrust may be that very website – and it is indeed. Apart from all the reasons why I greatly dislike their methods, there are still more to consider: for example is it still a mystery, how exactly the metacritc score is achieved – not that there have been no attempts to reveal that secret. The whole system still remains incredibly obscure and yet it has a huge influence on pretty much everything concerning gaming. Also, there still remains the question, why some gaming magazines’ scores have a greater impact on the overall score than others. Should it really be the most popular ones that determine the overall score? Outside of gaming there are several examples that the mainstream or most popular opinion not always is the best. People’s opinions can be influenced extremely easily by single influential persons. One human may be smart, but many humans together quickly become one mindless horde.

To return to the gaming context: often, it can be hard to tell whether a magazine really is as independent of publishers’ influences as it claims to be. There have been several attempts to win over game journalists, and thus, in the long term, also potential consumers and influence their opinions in a lucrative way. Public relations aka. PR is a department of the gaming industry that yields many jobs. Looking at EA’s terrible disasters in their customer treatment lately, one gets the impression that they must be spending a fortune on their PR, because people still are buying their games, despite their terrible customer treatment. *cough* SimCity *cough*. (If you hate them, like I do, this should make you smile devilishly. Also, please don’t forget to keep boycotting them.) Is Diablo 3 or SimCity a good game if you can’t play it? They might have nice gameplay and graphics, but the always-online connection makes them unplayable at times and very certainly in future years when they stop providing the online “service”. Yet, as far as I know, most gaming magazines don’t include severe problems like that into the rating.

Even if all these apparent flaws were not the case, how about the argument then, that by taking so many different sources to form one average score, one would get the ultimate score that truly represents the game’s quality? This again is a slap in the face of individuality. There are games that are loved by these and hated by those. Both sides have their arguments and thus their justification to their standpoint. By evening this out you destroy a great variety of opinions and diversity. You state that one value that is meant to be representing everyone’s opinion, which it truly can never be to independent and individual, critically thinking persons. By forming an average score you promote no initiative to think on your own or form your own opinion. There are people who buy games based solely on the metacritic score – which can be a great mistake, because people’s expectations to a game are individual – if you buy a game based on a metacritic score when you are a shooter fan, you might end up with an excellent adventure games that totally fails to adress your interests and entertain you. Of course, this is a very unlikely example, but even if you end up with a game of a category that you generally like, there might be things in it that you absolutely hate. Why? Because one single number can never represent the essence of a game’s myriad aspects. The best way to make sure that you really like a game is to actually play it instead of looking at imaginary numbers.

So, after pointing out many critical issues with rating scores, especially metacritic.com’s scores, you should be asking yourself the question: why do they still exist?

I have some theories about that:

First of all, I think that it’s in our very nature as human beings, to like categorizing, labeling and counting things. There is no other animal in nature who does that, except us. The reason for that may be our enormous brain capacity, that, if we used it properly, would prevent us from misusing it so often.

Secondly, having a rating score is the ultimate killer phrase in a debate about whether a game is good or not (if both sides of the discussion accept the concept of rating scores). You can’t argue against a number because it is one factual value that is immovable.

Lastly, I assume that ratings are a product of convenience. The convenience of not having to think critically on your own. It is easier to adapt other people’s opinions than to form your own and oppose theirs. It is easier to forfeit the potential of one’s wit than to actually use it. One does not have to watch rewievs or even read them. Instead it’s easier to just have a look at the rating score and save yourself the time and effort of reading through the article. The rating score, in that sense, is like an extreme version of the tl;dr, which I find very problematic, too. I am not trying to judge anyone here. Maybe this trend was born out of the necessity for simplification, because not only our world, but also the gaming genre is becoming more and more complicated. There are so many games out there that it’s really easy to lose track. Time is getting scarce and not everyone is willing to spend time researching games when instead they could be actually playing them. Still, this should be no excuse. Even a little reading could save you money in addition to potentially minimizing the dissappointment and maximizing the fun you are going to have with a game.

In the end, you might ask yourself this question: “Are ratings really that bad? They do not hurt anyone.” The last part there is not entirely true. In fact, as many should know (although pirates seem often to forget this) games do not just pop out of nowhere. There are real persons behind a game, men and women who worked hard to make a game that hopefully is fun to play and hopefully a lot of people will buy. You could think that their payment is based on how often the game is sold, and certainly, in most of the cases, this may be true, but there are exceptions. This is where it gets really ugly. It may not be the case in the development of every game, but surely the Fallout New Vegas incident was not an isolated case. Also you should not forget that working on a game can be either fun, boring, or outright terrible. Or all of them together.

To return to my original point: rating scores have already and will very likely again influence the lives of real persons in a negative way. That is a problem. Together with the aforementioned disadvantages of rating scores this should be put into consideration, when you deal with a rating score. They should not be taken too seriously, but unfortunately they are – it’s hard to not encounter them, they are everywhere: on Amazon, on IMDb and of course in school. The imaginary score to judge art and humans, two things that should and can not be measured in numbers.

I am not trying to condemn every magazine that uses rating scores. Many of them employ very experienced, rational journalists who produce excellently well written, thoughtfull articles, i. e. reviews of games, that however do the game so infinitely more justice than the additional rating score. I merely want to ask this question: do we really need rating scores when we could so easily do without them? I think that the answer is no. It is time that we learn to think more critically about the things we plan to buy. That means we should be actually reading reviews and discussing with people who played the game – and if there’s a demo or the possibility of borrowing it, we should actually play the game and form our own opinion – instead of relying on vague pseudo-scientific numerical values.

After all, gaming should be about all the wonderful things like overcoming a challenge and bathing in the sweet success, escaping reality and relaxing in virtual realities, feeling excitement and suspense when a great story grips us, entertaining, fascinating and inspiring us with mystical, beautiful worlds, great characters and intriguing gameplay – to sum it up: gaming should be about fun and joy. Things that can never be measured in numbers. You don’t need an abstract number telling you whether it is good or not. The most important fact is that you enjoy playing the game, because then it’s the best game in the world.

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